In the dying embers and blackened twigs of a ravaged forest, who could distinguish where the first spark was lit? Only the arsonist knows the exact location where that match was struck. — Lang Leav, Sad Girls


CO – Commanding Officer
DC – Damage Control
Inamorata – A woman with whom one is in love or has intimate relations; a female lover (Italian)
NDA – Non-Disclosure Agreement, signed by Yuán and Traynor at termination of the Ø7 program
OOD – Officer of the Deck, direct representative of the captain, having responsibility for the ship
SDU – Standard Duty Uniform
VI – Virtual Intelligence
X3M – a contragravity speeder designed for transporting individuals in metropolises and space stations.
XO – Executive Officer


• SYSTEMS ALLIANCE SHIPYARD, VANCOUVER, BC · 27 MARCH 2186 •

Alliance Chief Warrant Officer Samantha Traynor had been living and working in Vancouver for just over two years, having been transferred from the Alliance R&D facility outside of London in order to develop and test the Earth-bound QEC nodes that would be the matching connections to the nodes installed on the fleet's dreadnaughts, heavy cruisers and carriers. She had just returned from a ten-day furlough in Shanghai, where she had been the guest of Xiùlán's parents, Yuán Chaoxiang and Yuán Lì húa. Of course, the main attraction had been Xiùlán—the two women had become inseparable in just the relatively short time they had known each other—if Xiùlán was on Earth, Sammy was bound and determined to be with her.

There were one or two people in Sam's immediate chain of command that suspected Traynor of hacking the Alliance computers responsible for scheduling leave time in order to guarantee she'd be granted the dates she wanted; try as they might, they could never conclusively prove their suspicions. Virtually no one in the Alliance—with the exception of General RaeLee Park and Captain David Anderson—had any inkling as to just how incredibly talented Traynor was at cyber-intrusion; Park felt she was an absolute genius and could be pulling down ten or twenty times her current pay by working in the private sector. General Park was waiting for Traynor to arrive for a meeting—a meeting she hoped would provide the specialist with a challenge befitting her abilities.

As if on cue, a sharp knock on her door was preceded by her receptionist entering Park's office. "Chief Warrant Officer Samantha Traynor has arrived for her appointment, General."

Park smiled, saying, "Thank you, Corporal. Please, show her in."

The young man stood aside to allow a beaming Sammy to enter; she walked up to the general's desk, stopped, saluted, then offered her hand to RaeLee. "General … it's really good to see you after so much time."

Park grasped Traynor's hand and pumped it twice before releasing her and waving her to a nearby chair. "Always a pleasure, Samantha. It's been too damned long." She poured a cup of tea for the specialist, refilled her own mug with coffee and took a seat. "Specialist, I called you here today so I can personally hand you a new assignment."

Traynor sipped a bit of tea from her cup before responding. "General, begging your pardon, Ma'am, but … well, Alliance generals have better things to do than meet with the likes of me to discuss reassignments. Must be a really plum job, or a major turd."

Park chuckled at that. "You're absolutely correct, Sammy … I really do have other things to attend to—more important things, based on talk from those up the chain. I've been monitoring your work on the QEC project. You're ideas have cost the Alliance a lot of credits, credits that have been well spent, in my humble opinion." RaeLee slid a datapad across her desk. "Take a look at the info in that report, Specialist. Take your time."

Traynor picked up the datapad and quickly scanned through the report; when she was done, she looked up at the General and said, "The Normandy, Ma'am?

"Not the original ship, Sammy—you must know that one was blown to hell over Alchera, in the Omega Nebula. No, this is the SR-2—constructed by Cerberus …" Park noticed an expression of utter hatred wash over Traynor's features—if she hadn't been watching intently, she might have missed it. "for Commander Shepard to use in the fight to eradicate the Collectors."

Traynor read a bit more, then set the data pad on Parks desk and leaned back in her chair. "So Shepard really did destroy the Viper System relay … I thought that was bad intel, Ma'am. So … now what? Shepard's been arrested? … the ship confiscated?"

"Not confiscated, Samantha. Shepard's a Council Spectre—as such, she outranks every officer in every race's military, including me, and she's … well, let's just say she's in protective custody—Admiral Anderson traveled to Omega Station to escort her back here, to Vancouver. If the batarians were to get their hands on her, she'd be dead as soon as she set foot on Khar'shan."

Park sipped her coffee before continuing. "Shepard confiscated that ship from Cerberus and presented it to the Council for Spectre use. But … we get first crack at her, Sammy." RaeLee was smiling at the thought. "The ship will be brought to the yard here in Vancouver, where our engineers will analyze every nut, bolt, screw and wire, six ways from Sunday."

The general leaned forward and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone. "You're new assignment is going to be that ship, Sammy. My understanding is it will be reconfigured to Alliance specifications, never mind who owns it—and you'll be in charge of refitting the comms and situational display gear to our standards, along with installing the improved QEC equipment you helped design. We'll paint our logo on the hull and inside, but honestly, the Normandy is a Spectre vessel, the first of its kind."

Park took a sip from her mug, set it down gently and added, "What Cerberus stole from the Alliance to design and build an improved stealth frigate, the Alliance will take back in order to build a whole new generation of stealth frigates … for our navy."


• SYSTEMS ALLIANCE FLEET HQ, CITADEL · WIDOW SYSTEM •
— MONDAY, 24 APRIL 2186 —

Looking resplendent in her dress blue uniform, Staff Lieutenant Yuán Xiùlán stepped out of the UT-47a that had ferried her from the SSV Tokyo to the Alliance docks on the station. A Marine private met her at the main entrance, inquiring politely, "Begging your pardon, Ma'am, but are you Lieutenant Xiùlán?"

Xiùlán smiled indulgently at the young man. It wasn't often that someone would address her by her given name; most of the people in the Alliance had been instructed in proper protocol for addressing people of Chinese ancestry. "I am Lieutenant Yuán, Private," she responded, placing emphasis on her family name. "Xiùlán is my given name. What may I do for you, Private …?"

The young man's face colored slightly. He had been sent here to intercept the Staff Lieutenant in order to accompany her to a meeting with his new captain. "Begging your pardon, Ma'am. Name's Hamilton." Looking at his datapad, he added, "Admin must have inadvertently reversed your name, Ma'am."

He looked as if he was about to change the way it was arranged on his datapad, leading Xiùlán to say, "Leave it as it is, Private Hamilton. Chinese names are written surname first, followed by the given, or personal name. What's shown there is correct."

Hamilton looked up at this officer and was momentarily mesmerized by sable brown eyes … eyes that seemed capable of looking straight through him. He was surprised to see a pleasant smile, even as he realized she was at least a head taller than he was. "Of course, Ma'am. Ahh, I was instructed to meet and accompany you to your meeting with my captain … if you wouldn't mind following me?"

"Lead on, Private."


Hamilton guided them unerringly through the warren of hallways, stairs and elevators to a rather posh suite of meeting rooms near the embassies; pausing in front of a massive pair of double doors, he entered a code on his omnitool, then stepped back to wait as the interface quickly changed color in a continuous cross-fade from red to yellow to green. As the door opened, the private indicated Yuán should precede him with a nod of his head and a wave of his hand. Inside the circular lobby with the door closed behind them, Hamilton moved to another door, upon which he knocked twice before opening it inward.

"Staff Lieutenant Yuán Xiùlán is here to meet with Captain Cody." Yuán stood silently waiting as a man of average build and looks and sporting captain's bars on his collar rose from behind the desk, its surface littered with numerous datapads, files and paper.

His smile was pleasant enough as he extended his hand towards her; Xiùlán took three steps forward and clasped the offered hand with her own. "Lieutenant? I'm Bill Cody … William if you want to be formal. There are some that have even called me 'Wild Bill', but only after everyone's knocked back a few drinks. It's a pleasure to meet you."

A bit overwhelmed by his introduction, Xiùlán nodded as he pumped her hand twice saying, "Pleasure to meet you, Captain."

Waving her to a chair beside a square conference table, he asked, "May I get you something to drink, Lieutenant? Coffee … or tea?"

Taking a seat at the table, she replied with a smile, "A cup of tea would be most welcome, Captain, thank you."

Cody picked up a plain serving tray containing a teapot, coffee carafe, cups and creamer, set it in the center of the table, then poured a cup of tea for Xiùlán, followed by a cup of coffee for himself. Setting several datapads on the corner near her left elbow, he took a sip from his mug as he sat down. Placing one of the datapads in front of her, he began to explain why he had wanted to meet with her. "I've been given command of a brand new frigate, Lieutenant … set to launch in two weeks. I'm currently assembling the people I need to crew her, and I'd like you …" after pausing a moment to activate the datapad, he continued, " … to be my executive officer."

Xiùlán managed to suppress the emotional turmoil Cody's statement had engendered, thinking, What the hell? XO? On a new ship? as she replied, "Sir, I'm not sure I heard you correctly. You're offering me an XO's position on a new ship? I'm shy a pay grade at least, Sir … probably two … barely made staff lieutenant only thirty-two months ago. Ship's exec is usually a position held by a lieutenant commander."

"I know that, Lieutenant, and if the state of the galaxy … at least our portion of it … was closer to normal, I'd be hard pressed to convince upper brass of the wisdom of pulling you off the Tokyo." Cody took a sip of coffee as he looked through the information scrolling past on his datapad's view screen. "I've had several meetings with Admiral Hackett during construction of the Hong Kong II; when I first asked about you, he showed me your redacted personal file. I talked until I was blue in the face, but he wouldn't budge … told me if I wanted you as my exec that damned bad, I would have to trust that the blacked out portions of your record included some truly amazing stuff." Sipping a bit more coffee, he raised one eyebrow inquisitively and asked, "Was he telling me the truth … or just blowing smoke? Is that portion of your record really hiding special training and accomplishments?"

Xiùlán held her mug in both hands as she sipped her tea. Setting the mug on the table, she focused directly on Cody's eyes and quietly responded. "I don't think of my training as truly amazing, Sir. I can say, without violating the NDA I signed, that I do have some rather extensive training in computer science … and combat, both hand-to-hand and weapons training, and I was sent on a number of missions …" One in which I damn near died! came the thought, "while still in the program. The training I'm receiving on the Tokyo involves all the things a ship's captain needs to know to be successful."

Cody smiled at her last statement as he responded. "I've seen what you've been doing on the Tokyo, Lieutenant … it may be rather impolitic for me to comment on that, since the implication is I'm being critical of your current captain and leadership, but I truly believe your talents are being … well, I won't go so far as to say they're being wasted, so much as being underutilized. Truth is, a cruiser is simply too damned big—there are too many people on board—for a person's talents to truly stand out."

Xiùlán mulled this over as Cody finished his coffee and set the mug on the tray. Continuing his thought, he said, "A frigate, on the other hand, has a small enough crew to enable a person to reach their full potential in, I don't know … let's say it would be less than half the time it would take on a cruiser."

He leaned back in his chair, hands clasped on the edge of the table, and looked at her. "I'm going to cut to the chase, Ms Yuán. The admiral has given me a bit more latitude in filling my crew roster than I'd normally expect; poaching good crew members from other ships is normally frowned upon, but the Hong Kong II needs the best the Alliance has to offer. You make an official request for a transfer from the Tokyo to the Hong Kong, I'll promote you as soon as the paperwork is complete. Do a good job as my XO and you'll be a staff commander in twelve months. I hope you're interested, because I can't make the offer any sweeter than that, Lieutenant."

Xiùlán was nearly overwhelmed by the generosity of the offer being put to her. It was a struggle to keep her emotions under control as she responded in the only way a person with good common sense could respond. "I'll file the request with Captain Tyler as soon as I'm back aboard the ship, Sir … and … thank you, very much. Your offer is more than generous … I would be foolish to take a pass. I'll do a good job for you, Captain."

Cody grinned. "I'm sure you will, Lieutenant." He stood and offered his hand, repeating his words as she reciprocated. "I'm sure you will."


• SYSTEMS ALLIANCE SHIPYARD, VANCOUVER, BC · TUESDAY, 23 MAY 2186 •

It was a pleasant, late spring day in Vancouver, British Columbia. Specialist Samantha Traynor was sitting on the outer edge of the Normandy SR-2's deployed hanger bay ramp, taking a short break from her job of reconfiguring the entire communications system of the ship; her main task involved relocating the QEC nodes from the former conference room amidships on Deck Two to a new, secure location at the stern on the same deck. She was also lead consultant for the installation of the real-time situation display in the newly created war room, right outside the QEC chamber. The conference room was now located next to the inner hull on the ship's starboard side; all three of the newly created compartments were only accessible through a checkpoint that would be guarded by a pair of Marines once the ship was crewed.

As she tipped her head back, she closed her eyes to enjoy the warmth of the sun shining full on her face; it made her think of Xiùlán, on an Alliance warship out in space, somewhere in one of the many systems where humans had established colonies. Sam had yet to hear if her Inamorata had completed her transfer from the SSV Tokyo to the SSV Hong Kong II; the ship was newly commissioned as a replacement for the original frigate of the same name, destroyed in the Battle of the Citadel in 2183. Traynor had attempted to contact Yuán several times during the past three weeks; after having been able to chat with her on a monthly basis during her time on the Tokyo, it was rather troubling that she was suddenly unable to connect with her Inamorata. Each message she sent had been returned with an error attachment stating Recipient not found; the only conclusion she could draw was that the progressively tightened security measures since the recent destruction of the Viper relay had finally affected personal communications.

At a chime from her omnitool, the specialist reluctantly got to her feet and strode back up the ramp into the dimly lit hanger bay. She had to concentrate on where she was placing her feet as she moved towards the elevator at the aft end of the large hanger; once inside, she entered her passcode and requested Deck Two. As the double doors hissed closed and the car began its brief ascent, she thought again of Xiùlán and their last time on leave together, sharing Xiùlán's bed in her parent's home in Shanghai.

That was a little slice of heaven, she thought, only it was for too short a time. And now, to not really know on which ship Xiùlán was posted …

The sound of the elevator doors sliding apart interrupted her reverie; pushing off from the side wall, she walked out into the CIC and turned to the right in order to enter the short hallway leading to the newly enhanced checkpoint. With a slight smile, she nodded towards Private Westmoreland, then Private Campbell at the far end of the choke-point, as she liked to think of it. While walking past the clear walls of the conference room, she noticed Major Kaidan Alenko speaking with Flight Lieutenant Moreau—Joker, as he was known far and wide—and the ship's VI, code named EDI. Traynor couldn't hear what was being said, and it didn't really matter … maybe they were planning their first shake-down flight—the Normandy was undergoing a massive internal transformation, set to be complete in a space of just under four months. A shake-down flight would be essential to insure all the systems, both new and pre-existing, had been properly integrated with each other. By most estimates, the ship wouldn't be completely flight-ready for five weeks after its shake-down flight, as there were unsecured power and communications cables everywhere, both on the deck and hanging from the overhead, even in the new war room and newly revamped CIC. The ship could be flown—it just wasn't buttoned up.

Returning to the QEC compartment, she moved to the rear of the imaging platform to finish working on one of the three projection attenuators. It wasn't difficult work—for her, anyway—but it did require her to be a hundred percent focused; by the time she was finished for the evening, she would be beyond ready for a cold beer, a hot meal and a hot shower … in that order … to be followed by an appointment with her bed.


• WEDNESDAY, 21 SEPTEMBER 2186 •

"Hey Specialist … you heard the latest?" Traynor was passing through the passageway checkpoint on her way to the war room; she looked at Private Campbell and waited. "It's all over the ANN—there's been a massive influx of batarian ships in the Exodus Cluster—so many that officials at first thought it was an invasion. Turns out they're all refugees—they're claiming that the Hegemony's fleet has been attacked—that Khar'shan and other planets in the Harsa system are being bombarded from orbit."

Traynor was absolutely stunned. "What the hell, Sarah? Who would be foolish enough to attack the Hegemony? It's rumored they've been building warships ever since they closed their embassy on the Citadel and withdrew back to the Kite's Nest in 2171."

Campbell smirked as she replied, "Not who, Specialist—what. Everyone has a different opinion, but it is a known fact that all the comm relays in Harsa have either been severely damaged or destroyed, making for sporadic communications in the system. And the batarians entering Exodus even include a few military vessels and personnel."

Traynor shook her head in dismay. "That cannot be a good thing, Private. If whatever is attacking them follows them to the Exodus Cluster, that's just a two-relay jump from our own system, never mind our colonies there … or Arcturus Station. Sonovabitch! Nearly every warship we got is based in those two systems—all we have here is the Fourth Fleet." After a brief pause, she added, "Never mind getting this ship ready to fly—we have to get 'er ready to fight." Moving towards the war room with renewed purpose, she said over her shoulder, "I'll see you later, Private."


• WEDNESDAY, 27 SEPTEMBER 2186 •

The morning sky in Vancouver was ominous shades of grey, promising an early shower or two, which would undoubtedly be followed by a steady rain. Sammy was wearing a hooded rain jacket, as she expected to be walking home in a late afternoon drizzle.

Traynor had been working ten-hour days for the past week—since learning of the mysterious attack by unknown forces in the batarian home system of Kite's Nest. She had the two QEC terminals working—one connected with the node in the hills outside of Vancouver, and the second one with its paired node aboard Arcturus Station. Additionally, the supplementary nodes set up in the Vancouver bunker were working quite well with their paired terminals at various points around the globe.

It had been a bit complicated to pull off, but each of the Vancouver nodes was now capable of relaying their reception to an outgoing terminal in the same bunker. It wasn't as seamless as could be desired, but Sammy had been on a mission ever since going to work on the Normandy … she would be damned if she wouldn't do anything and everything she possibly could to ensure comms between the fleet admirals and the several HQ locations on Earth. The assault in the Kite's Nest had added a new sense of urgency to her work—a shitstorm was coming, and there didn't seem to be any way to dodge it, duck it, or outrun it.

She had just reached the repeater terminal in the CIC—this would provide real-time data from the situation terminal in the War room—when the planetary defense alarms began wailing outside. Bringing the ship's external sensor array online, she tasked the galaxy map projectors with displaying the images that were being streamed to the war room. She also initiated the recording devices as she punched up the internal comms. "Flight Lieutenant! We need to get this bird in the air—now!"

EDI's smooth voice came back over the speakers. "Agreed, Specialist Traynor. We can see a limited amount through our viewports. I have sent a notification to Major Alenko and Admiral Anderson. They are on their way to the landing zone from the Defense Committee offices. Admiral Hackett has mobilized all the fleets. The base on Luna has stopped reporting in. UK HQ has gone dark as well."

Traynor had her first look at the forces assaulting Vancouver; there were reports coming in from all over the planet. Seeing the Reapers for the first time, she finally believed … all the tales she had been told as a child of monsters in the dark were really true.

She was getting ready to reconfigure the galaxy map projectors when the elevator doors opened behind her and a male's voice said, "Sitrep, Specialist." Thankfully, Major Alenko had made it to the ship.

"Lieutenant Moreau is prepping the ship for departure, Sir. Even though the ship is pretty well automated, I'm not sure we have enough crew on board to fly 'er and fight 'er." She paused for a moment, then asked, "Is Admiral Anderson on board, Sir?"

"Negative—he was with Shepard in the Defense Committee office." A brief pause, then seemingly to the air around him, he said, "Joker! We're a sitting duck down here … get this bird in the air and evade their fire!" Without waiting for an acknowledgement, he turned towards Sammy and continued, "Building got blasted pretty hard, so I came here when I couldn't get back to them. Anderson said he and Shepard are heading for …"

They both grabbed the railing in front of them as the Normandy's inertial dampeners lagged slightly behind Joker's extreme high-angle, full-power lift-off and rolling departure from the dock. As they gained altitude and speed, Alenko started to continue his explanation when Traynor brought one hand to her ear as she held up the other. "Hang on, Sir." After a few moments, she toggled a control on her console, routing the external comm-feed through the speakers in the CIC.

The unmistakable voice of Admiral Anderson filled the area. "Major Alenko, we're in sight of the spaceport. ETA: three minutes."

Kaidan responded immediately. "We made it to the Normandy. Taking heavy fire … Oh god!" Looking at the display in front of him, he raised his voice to include Joker. "They're gonna take down that cruiser! Evasive Maneuvers!"

Traynor cut the feed before she could hear Anderson's response; Joker had the Normandy well away from the cruiser when its eezo core exploded, enveloping the unfortunate vessel in a massive, white-hot explosion. The shock waves, hitting the Normandy from the starboard rear quarter, actually shoved the ship sideways and higher, as if a giant hand had swatted it like an annoying bee. It took only a moment for Joker to regain control, but the EM blast from the cruiser had temporarily scrambled communications with the ground.

As Traynor worked to reestablish comms, Alenko stepped up on the platform at the rear of the galaxy map. "Joker! Be ready to go grab the admiral and Shepard—they'll most likely be at the edge of the bay."

"Copy, Major."

As they circled the area, Traynor expressed amazement that the machines weren't targeting them, to which Alenko responded, "They're Reapers, Specialist. And I'm guessing the Normandy is still equipped with the IFF device we used to pass through the Omega-4 relay. The Reapers ignore us, because we ping as if we were one of them."

Traynor nodded her understanding, even if she wasn't sure what the hell an IFF was, or why she hadn't seen it within the ship. As she thought about Alenko's explanation, Anderson's voice came over the speakers again.

"Normandy, this is Anderson … do you read?"

Alenko answered, "Admiral. What's your location?"

"By a downed gunship in the harbor." A brief pause, then, "I'm activating its distress beacon. Send support. We've got wounded down here."

Alenko started to respond, but a burst of static from the system prevented it. "Joker! We need to get down there now!"

"Copy, Major. Almost there." The Normandy could maneuver faster than the flight-computer could adjust the inertial dampeners; for Traynor, having never been on an advanced warship in battle, it was a totally new, stomach-churning experience. Alenko clamped a hand on her shoulder and said, "I'm going to grab a couple of Marines and go down to the hanger bay. Stay on comms, Specialist. Call me if there's anything I need to know."

"Yes, Sir." Watching the elevator doors close behind the major, Sammy was left to wonder just what the hell the Alliance had gotten her into. No fuckin' way do I belong on a warship! she thought, as she continued to monitor comms chatter while continuously correcting for the electronic jamming emanating from the attackers.


• SSV HONG KONG II · STANDING OFF FROM THE UTOPIA RELAY •

The Hong Kong II, along with two other frigates, was accompanying the cruiser Tokyo; the modest task force had entered the Exodus System four days ago in response to the waves of batarian ships—mostly civilian freighters and passenger vessels, along with a few damaged military ships—that had started pouring through the relay the previous Wednesday. By the time of their arrival in system, the colonial governor of Eden Prime had persuaded Adhorag Krer'farr, the captain of the Khar'Shan class dreadnought that had been nearly the last ship through the relay, to lead the majority of the batarian vessels to a vector that placed them on the far side of the planet Zion; this was done in the hope that, when the Kite's Nest attackers inevitably came through the relay, they would quickly move on to Arcturus without spending too much time in the system.

Krer'farr was adamant that he be allowed an opportunity to join with the Alliance fleet in order to have his revenge on the unholy abominations—still not identified as Reapers—that had smashed their way through Harsa; he had pleaded his case with Captain Tyler on the Tokyo, who had diplomatically informed the batarian that fighting alongside Alliance vessels was out of the question, due to differing offensive styles, but … he was welcome to do what he felt he had to, as long as he didn't endanger human interests in the system or Arcturus.

Near the end of the third shift, Lieutenant Yuán was on the Hong Kong's bridge as the OOD when the relay's eezo containment rings began increasing their rotational velocity in preparation of receiving a ship or ships from the originating relay. Calling out instructions to the helmsmen, she made sure the ship was well away from whatever would momentarily be appearing beside the ancient device.

All of her training could not prepare her for what happened next—visions from the black depths of hell, themselves devoid of any color—appeared one after the other, all seemingly cut from the same mold. It only took her a second to react, and in that second the Hong Kong nearly fell victim to the first assault by Reapers in the Exodus Cluster. Xiùlán toggled several controls simultaneously: alarms for Battle Stations, DC Teams and Collision Alert began sounding as she directed the helmsmen to execute an emergency descending turn away from the relay. After activating the controls that summoned the captain, she sent an alert to the Tokyo, followed by an emergency message through the comm buoys to Arcturus, praying as she did so that they weren't being jammed. She then entered the FTL vector plot that would allow the ship to follow the Tokyo and the other two accompanying frigates well away from the enemy vessels, still coming through the relay and assembling into ranks of various numbers and sizes.

"Sitrep, Lieutenant!" Captain Cody spoke into the comms from the CIC, where he was standing at the projection well for the galaxy map.

Yuán ordered the helmsmen to follow the Tokyo before answering the captain. "Sir, approximately seventy to eighty dreadnaught size machines, all fitting the descriptions of attacking forces relayed to us by Captain Krer'farr, just entered the system. They appear to be assembling into ranks, waiting for the relay …" here, Yuán momentarily paused as she studied her display. "waiting for the relay to realign with Arcturus." Xiùlán went on to tell her captain everything she had done since the relay activated.

"Can we fight them, Lieutenant?"

"Sir, these things appear similar to the geth super-dreadnaught that attacked the Citadel in 2183; it took the entire Navy to destroy that one, and there weren't a bunch of others firing back in its defense." Xiùlán transferred the readouts to the CIC, turning the galaxy map into a tactical display for Cody's benefit. "LADaR paints them all as between 1.8 and 2 kilometers in length, and their kinetic barriers are massive. Based on the information provided by the batarians, we know their firepower is capable of cutting through dreadnaught size ships like a hot knife through butter." Yuán checked her displays—the Hong Kong had dropped out of FTL at a distance of 4.2 million Km from the relay—which she also relayed to the captain.

Cody appeared to mull over everything he'd just been told. "Lieutenant Yuán, I am ready to relieve you."

"I am ready to be relieved, Sir."

Yuán waited as Cody looked over the tactical display; having garnered awareness of their strategic position, he said, "I relieve you, Lieutenant."

Yuán responded, "I stand relieved, Sir," before keying her comms on deck one and two and stating, "Attention all hands, Captain Cody has the deck."

Cody contacted Captain Tyler on the Tokyo to discuss strategy; after a brief conversation, she decided to attempt a bold move. Sending her instructions simultaneously while speaking to her own crew, she said, "Helm, transmit the identity codes of our ships to the relay and instruct it to reposition for Arcturus."

Yuán was a bit shocked by the strategy until Cody quietly explained via her ear-mounted comm, "First come, first served isn't the way the relays work, Lieutenant. They always open a space-time corridor that's only as large as the largest ship making the transit. Since our ships are so much smaller than the Reapers, it stands to reason we'll get to make the trip to Arcturus before them." Mouth set in a grim, straight line, he added, "Captain Tyler tasked us with warning the others. I need you to compose and record a warning for Arcturus, Lieutenant—the station, the fleet, everyone. We need to be broadcasting that warning before we arrive in the system—save as many of our ships and people as we can."

"Aye, Sir." Yuán moved to an auxiliary terminal to compose and record the message as Captain Cody instructed the helmsmen to head for the relay with all possible speed. As she entered the warning and queued it to transmit, she was thinking of how thankful she was that Sammy was currently on Earth.


• EPILOGUE · REAPER INVASION OF ARCTURUS, SOL AND APIEN CREST •

Unknown to Xiùlán, Sammy had been fortunate enough to be working on the Normandy when the Reapers came through the Arcturus relay, there to systematically destroy Arcturus Station, the shipyard and the entire Second Fleet; the majority of the First Fleet at the Charon Relay was destroyed as well. The cruiser Tokyo, along with her accompanying frigates, managed to rejoin the Third Fleet as it made good its escape from Arcturus.

As the pitiless race of machines spread further into the galaxy, system after system went dark as the comm buoys were destroyed. With communications limited to relatively short distances, there were many in what remained of the Navy—not the least of which were Xiùlán on the Hong Kong and Sammy on the Normandy—that had no way of knowing if the other still lived. Their only choice was to continue to do their jobs and hope … pray … to the ancestors or gods of their choice they'd find each other at the end.

As more and more systems fell to the onslaught, those ships that remained, including the Hong Kong II, regrouped and began harassing the Reapers with hit and run tactics designed to do as much damage as possible with the fewest casualties among the Alliance forces. It was the fervent hope of everyone that Rachaél Shepard, reinstated and once again in command of the Normandy, could pull off the miracle of uniting the disparate races of the galaxy while an ancient weapon, supposedly of Prothean design, was constructed in secret. The future existence of every space-faring race in the galaxy hung in the balance.


A/N: It is with no small amount of regret that I bring this story to a close. When I began, it was my intention to depict what I imagined to be a plausible, pre-Mass Effect I-III background for Specialist Samantha Traynor; this was prompted by a number of comments of disbelief in her abilities, particularly her mastery of hand-to-hand combat, whether 'unarmed', or with bladed weapons. When I imagined her mission on Cartagena Station as a dream sequence aboard the Normandy in 'TRANSFORMATION, Part I (since changed to Part II): Going Home', the seed was planted to develop Traynor's back-story, along with that of the love of her life, Yuán Xiùlán. The story of Samantha and Xiùlán continues in 'TRANSFORMATION, Part III: New Beginnings'. In closing, I offer my thanks to everyone that has read this story. There were times I felt as if it was a futile effort; my Beta reader and co-author disagreed with that assessment. That, along with the positive reviews, provided more than enough incentive for me to continue. My sincere thanks to Desert Sunrise, as well as every one of you that has stuck with me on this journey.